The question that has motivated much of my work so far has been: What difference does language make? What difference does it make in our relationships, religious acts, beliefs, our memories (of others), and more broadly all that in one way or another involves language. I want to understand how the circle that is language changing society (community, politics, religion, rituals) changing language actually works. I continue to wonder about how subjectivity is mediated through and constructed (or not? If not why not) with the help of language and how language in turn shapes experiences in different spheres of life. I also continue to be in search of theories and frameworks that best address such questions.
I received my BA and PhD in linguistics from the University of Pennsylvania. My first book was on language and gender in Cairo and addressed one of the main questions emerging out of sociolinguistics in the 1980s—who are the agents of language change, women or men?
I gravitated toward linguistic anthropology after finishing my dissertation. Based on a second period of fieldwork in Cairo in 1995-96, I wrote Sacred Language, Ordinary People: Dilemmas of Culture and Politics in Egypt (2003). In this book, I explore the dilemmas that have arisen as a result of choosing Classical Arabic (the language of the Qur’an) as the official standard language of Egypt (and of other Arab countries), rather than Egyptian Arabic, the mother tongue of Egyptians. As part of the reform movement beginning in the 19th century, the choice was made to “modernize” [tahdith] Classical Arabic in order to make it more suitable for contemporary needs rather than standardize the vernacular language. In fact, a version of Classical Arabic was developed that secular intellectuals and Arab nationalists saw as the language representing their contributions to the modernization project. However, the identification of Classical Arabic with the Qur’an is very strong and it gets reinforced daily by reading and listening to the Qur’an and by doing the daily salat prayers. I argue that Egyptian Muslims (like other Muslims) are custodians of Classical Arabic and as custodians, the question of who has the right to change the language is deeply contentious. Up to the present time, the language question is addressed in conferences in many parts of the Arab world and continues to be deeply divisive. At the same time, the use of Arabic online seems to be promoting the written use of vernacular Arabic and the younger generations appear more attracted to its use. In fact, vernacular Arabic in Egypt is in the process of being standardized and will perhaps be used more extensively in print, as has been the case with a number of novels that have appeared in the last decade.
Out of this project, I collaborated with Dr. Catherine Miller, Director of the Institut de recherches et d’etudes sur le monde arabe et musulman (IREMAM) on language and modernity in various parts of the Muslim world such as Turkey, India, Pakistan, Indonesia, Morocco, East Africa, and Cameroon, among others. This topic continues to interest me and I hope to go back to it soon.
Between 2008 and 2016, I carried out fieldwork in Tehran, Iran with a group of middle class, educated women born in the 1940s. A book based on this work was just published (though its copyright date is 2021). The book is called Say What Your Longing Heart Desires: Women, Prayer, and Poetry in Iran (Stanford University Press). My interest in this work began with hearing some women talk about how on some days their namaz was satisfactory and on others, it was not. I had never thought about ritual prayer being characterized in these ways—that it can go well, or badly. In following this question, I expanded my research to include two other kinds of prayer as well as the work that Persian classical poetry does in these womens’ lives. I argue that prayer and poetry have been companions in the cultural history of Iran over the past centuries; and they are so also in the lives of these women.
I received a Guggenheim Fellowship and a Stanford Humanities Center Fellowship in 2015-2016.